It’s official: NASA has just selected SpaceX to supply the US agency’s next manned lunar lander. This will finance SpaceX for a first unmanned mission, then a second with a crew. SpaceX, once again, is poised to make aerospace history by dropping the first humans on the moon since the Apollo era.
About a year ago, the NASA announced the award of three contracts to begin the development of lunar landing systems that will allow the next man and first woman to land on the moon in 2024. The companies chosen were: Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX. Since then, these three service providers have developed their prototype lunar landing vehicles.
NASA chooses SpaceX
Ultimately, the cost of SpaceX’s offering was about half that of Dynetics and about a quarter of the amount offered by Blue Origin. This frugality, at least in part, led NASA on Friday to choose Elon Musk’s company as the one and only landing service provider.
The US agency has announced that it will allocate $ 2.89 billion to SpaceX for the development of its Starship vehicle for two flights. One of those missions will be an unmanned test to the lunar surface. The ship will then return to Earth. The second mission will be the first crewed flight of the Artemis program. This mission – Artemis III – is officially still scheduled for 2024.
Starship offered several benefits, NASA officials said. SpaceX’s spacecraft will indeed have a spacious cabin for astronauts, two airlocks and sufficient payload capacity to bring a large number of experiments to the Moon and return samples to Earth. Significantly, NASA engineers also praised the vehicle’s innovative design and forward-looking technology that could one day also be used on Mars.
Whether technically or financially, SpaceX has ticked all the boxes.
NASA will go to the moon with its means
The budget still seems to have been the most important factor. NASA has indeed struggled to obtain funding from Congress for this lunar lander project. For example, for the current fiscal year, the agency said it needed $ 3.3 billion in funding to achieve its goals. Congress, for its part, only proposed $ 850 million.
While the Biden administration recently approved these return to the moon targets, the new U.S. government is working to update the program with a more realistic timeline given Congress’ budget predilections. Friday’s announcement is part of this process of making Artemis more affordable.
Naturally, offering just one provider for the human landing system won’t be particularly popular in Congress, where traditional space companies like Lockheed Martin and new entrants like Blue Origin have more established lobbying power than SpaceX.
Also, through its decision, NASA and the White House are sending a clear message to budget drafters operating in the House and Senate. NASA will go to the moon. And she will do with her means.
SLS + Orion + Vessel
SpaceX has largely self-funded the development of its launcher / spacecraft for about five years, with the goal of someday using it to send humans to Mars. The structure is on a fully reusable upper floor (the Starship), which will be capped at the top of a booster called Super Heavy. For now, these two structures are still in the testing phase in South Texas.
As part of the Artemis program, SpaceX has offered to deliver a modified version of its Starship vehicle to lunar orbit.
In the idea, a crew of astronauts would launch themselves inside an Orion spacecraft capped above the SLS, NASA’s super-heavy launcher. Orion would travel with Starship to lunar orbit. There, two crew members will be transferred to the landing system with the aim of reaching the surface of the Moon. After about a week, they will re-board with the goal of joining the Orion ship before returning to Earth.
As to how all of this might fit on top of the SLS, it’s still unclear at this time.
Naturally, it won’t have escaped your notice that SpaceX is also planning to launch humans to the Moon with its Starship from Earth. Also, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to question the necessity of the SLS rocket like the Orion spacecraft, two very expensive structures, when lunar crews could simply launch from the surface of the Earth at a lower cost.
However, NASA is well aware that Congress – heavily invested in Orion and the SLS rocket, and in the jobs they generate in all 50 states – will never support such a program. Not yet, in any case.